Stuck in a moral maze

31st October 2003 at 00:00
Hamlet. By William Shakespeare. Nuffield Theatre, Southampton.

Director Patrick Sandford calls Hamlet a moral thriller - a modern one, with the main character ending up dead, "surrounded by the most bloody mess. And lays the country waste for Fortinbras to walk in on his way back from Poland".

Hamlet is shadowed by politics, just as we live personal lives, with politics from the car radio or TV in the corner. Claudius (David Gwillim) is a political genius, bloody criminal and raffish playboy. He's in denial after his crime, showing genuine warmth to Hamlet at the start. His prayer distinguishes earth, where offences "shove by justice" from heaven.

Sandford links this to politics around war in Iraq; today (it's a modern-dress production), there would be a Hutton-type inquiry into Polonius' death.

Polonius (John Woodvine) is a bureaucrat, with a regulation for everything, crass in his spying on Hamlet and amazed no one else thinks his way. He's ruthless; his inhumanity - he treats women appallingly - makes him dangerous.

Ophelia (Chipo Chung) tries to assert herself , Sandford points out: "She has the potential to go mad - (she's) so emotionally sensitive she's easily knocked out of kilter." Though innocent of old Hamlet's murder, Gertrude (Heather Tobias) shows little love for her first husband. There's little grief and no good word for old Hamlet (Jonathan Newth). She stays wilfully ignorant of the crime. After the play-within-a-play re-enacts old Hamlet's poisoning, she looks at her husband in a new light, or does not look at him, fearing what she'll see. When Claudius speaks to her at length she barely replies. And she tries to prevent Hamlet speaking of the murder.

Hamlet (Stephen Noonan) himself shows a "tension between true existential suffering, very profound grief and a sense of human futility - and ironic detachment; dry, witty and good-humoured". The play examines "to what extent that tension is sane or neurotic - is he mad?"

Hamlet is "incredibly perceptive". He never sulks but, "engages full-bloodedly in the search for a way through his suffering (and his grief for humanity)" - yet remains a young man who gets it wrong.

Tickets tel: 023 80 671771. Until November 15www.nuffieldtheatre.co.uk

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